A year ago, an American city almost drowned. As New Orleans slowly sank beneath the brackish floodwaters unleashed by Hurricane Katrina, the nation watched in horror and wondered what the future held for the dying city. A year later, New Orleans is in the midst of a halting, sloppy recovery. But it is recovering, despite dire predictions last September that the city was gone and admonitions that it should not be rebuilt.
For better or for worse, five or 10 years from now, New Orleans will be pretty much what it was before the storm hit, with many of the same charms — and many of the same problems.
New Orleans taught the nation that cities don’t easily die. Nor, it turns out, do they change much.
Take the levees, for example: Their shoddy construction led to the flooding after Katrina, and they are mostly fixed now. But teams of engineers monitoring the reconstruction say they are not markedly improved and still cannot hold back the waters of a Category 5 hurricane.
Crime, an unfortunate New Orleans trademark, is the same if not worse than it was before Aug. 29. The economy remains the question mark it has been since the 1980s oil bust. And all across the city, homeowners are rebuilding homes the old way, in harm’s way, because the city and the state have not yet said they can’t.
Many problems persist because there’s no master plan for the city’s future. There’s no prohibition on rebuilding in places that have always been vulnerable to flooding — and still are. In some neighborhoods, the real planning is happening inside people’s homes, around the kitchen table or in small neighborhood groups.
Absent from the rebuilding is a vision for New Orleans as a whole, a way to use this tragedy — and the city’s portion of $27 billion in federal rebuilding money earmarked for Louisiana — to transform a city that was decaying for decades before the storm hit.
Most people say they just want to rebuild what they had. "People just want to get back to where they were before the storm," says Tim Ryan, chancellor of the University of New Orleans.
"My fear is the city is coming up with a plan that is all repair, with no dreams for the future," says David Voelker, a member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which has as much as $7 billion in federal dollars waiting for New Orleans to come up with ways to spend it. This is in addition to the $7 billion in grants to homeowners that begin flowing in September.
There will be some major changes. A city whose population drops by half — from 460,000 pre-Katrina to about 200,000 now — is going to be different, no matter where the remainder choose to live. And the school system, wrested by the state from a dysfunctional local school board just weeks after Katrina, is getting a major overhaul and could become a national model for charter schools. This fall, at least 20,000 students are expected to attend 52 schools, 32 of which will be charters.
"Cities do come back from tremendous devastation," says Lawrence Vale, an urban expert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But resilience means bouncing back, and that’s not the same as bouncing forward. The forces of pre-disaster inertia are very powerful, for the good and for the ill."
Last Aug. 29, Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane packing 160-mile-an-hour winds, weakened significantly as it made landfall in Plaquemines Parish. It then skirted the city and decimated Mississippi’s Gulf Coast with a 28-foot storm surge. New Orleans, it seemed briefly, had dodged a bullet.
Then something happened, something worse than any storm. Levees along city drainage canals and the Mississippi River crumbled at multiple points, sending water rushing into the city and surrounding parishes. More than 100,000 of 188,000 households in New Orleans were swamped by at least four feet of water, some by as much as 12 feet. All but 50 of St. Bernard Parish’s 27,000 homes flooded.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., caused a small storm when he wondered about the wisdom of rebuilding a flood-prone city. He suggested, in an interview with an Illinois newspaper, that a lot of New Orleans "could be bulldozed."
In fact, it turned out that the small but essential heart of the city — including the French Quarter, much of the downtown business district and the Garden District — was spared any flooding, and the rest was dry in a matter of weeks. By October, power and water were restored to many unflooded neighborhoods. Pioneering residents began to return, many living in the dark, traveling out of town for groceries and gas. The population struggled back to about 100,000 by Christmas.
The death toll in Louisiana stands at 1,464; a body was found as recently as two weeks ago.
As New Orleans dried out, Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission asked the Washington-based Urban Land Institute to draw up visions of the city’s future. The pictures were lovely.
On Jan. 11, New Orleans residents and media from around the world crowded into a ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street. Colorful schematics showed a city of pedestrian walkways and bike paths, light rail transit, new parks and lots of open space.
There was a catch: The planners said the city should shrink substantially to fit the smaller population. Under the plan, badly flooded neighborhoods were to locate and survey former residents and determine how many wanted to return. If the numbers were too small, the city would not restore services to the area, abandoning the neighborhood and forcing residents to sell their properties to the city and move to more populated sections of town.
There were tears and shouted objections. Affluent whites from Lakeview were as angry as poor blacks from the Lower 9th Ward. Before the meeting even adjourned, Nagin backed down from his own commission’s recommendations to forcibly shrink the footprint of the city.
Since then, two more sets of planners have been enlisted, but they are at odds with one another, and neither has come up with a master plan. Meanwhile, across the city, residents have been taking matters into their own hands.
"The Bring New Orleans Back Commission said we should be condos and green space — that’s what got us going," says Rusty Berridge, who lived in Broadmoor, a historic, mixed-income neighborhood, before the storm.
Since January, the Broadmoor Improvement Association (BIA) has held more than 125 meetings and located more than half of its former residents, now flung across the nation. Of the 1,100 they have contacted, 87% say they want to come home to Broadmoor. The neighborhood has enlisted help from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which completed a 300-page plan for redevelopment of the neighborhood, down to such details as how high light poles should be.
"Our goals are reachable, they are obtainable," BIA President LaToya Cantrell says. The neighborhood has frequently flooded. Residents are relying on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to improve flood control.
Several other neighborhoods, some on their own, some with help from the city’s planners, have completed redevelopment plans. None of the plans calls for barring redevelopment in sections or streets vulnerable to flooding or still deserted one year after Katrina.
More than 40,000 rebuilding permits have been issued in New Orleans since Katrina. Thousands of those are for homes that won’t be raised off the ground, even though they flooded.
"I’m rebuilding on a concrete slab," says Tanya Harris, who lived in the most devastated section of the Lower 9th Ward, where virtually every house was damaged. Many were pushed off their foundations or reduced to sticks by water rushing through a nearby levee breach. "I had 15 feet of water in my house," she says. "How would you begin to raise your house to avoid 15 feet of water?"
Thousands of residents whose homes were salvageable have been legally rebuilding them just as they were. The city and state did not want to penalize pioneers who began rebuilding before new guidelines could be crafted.
Now, residents building new homes will have to comply with the Federal Emergency Management Agency floodplain guidelines. The rules are confusing, but in general, they say most homes here must be raised at least three feet off the ground.
Harris’ neighborhood is the last section of the city that still lacks drinking water, and there’s no electricity, so even if she finishes her renovations, she can’t move in. The city says the Lower 9th Ward is trailing in services because of the extent of the damage there.
"People are fighting tooth and nail to get back there," Harris says. "It has been drilled into us most of our lives to hold onto our property by any means."
Indeed, homeownership in the neighborhood is among the highest in the city, at more than 60%.
Eventually, the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) and some planners say the city will have to face the reality that it can’t provide essential services to 200,000 residents living where 460,000 once were. There are redevelopment projects that can’t happen just on the neighborhood level, that need to happen citywide.
LRA board member Sean Reilly says every hurricane-damaged Louisiana parish except New Orleans has submitted a master plan, and that failure has slowed the flow of money into the city. "Homeowners in New Orleans need some guidance on which neighborhoods are going to come back and when," he says.
But there’s no one to make those decisions. John McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, says the city’s biggest mistake so far was the decision not to create an agency with legal authority to make tough decisions, such as shrinking the city’s footprint and encouraging denser development in the areas that did not flood.
He points out that the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. was created in New York just 10 weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. "And that redevelopment was much smaller in scope," McIlwain says. "Here you have the largest rebuilding effort ever in this country’s history, and there is no one with the authority to acquire land or make unpopular decisions about which blocks will be rebuilt."
Mayor Nagin insists the city is "on track and moving forward."
"I still believe in my heart there will be 300,000 people here by the end of the year," he said recently.
There are other signs a new city is not emerging from the wreckage. Violent crime, for years among the worst in the nation, is rising sharply again after virtually disappearing last fall. There were as many slayings in July as there were in July 2005, police say, despite a 50% decrease in the population. U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Monday he’s sending extra U.S. attorneys, marshals and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to help local law enforcement.
Despite calls from planners, elected officials and civil engineers for a complete redesign of the city’s failed levee system, the Army Corps of Engineers, on directions from Congress, has spent $1 billion to bring flood protection back to where it was pre-Katrina. Plans are in the works for another $5 billion in upgrades, but even those won’t provide protection from a Category 5 storm, which forecasters say is more and more likely to occur.
"We’re going to get a really nice, 1965 flood-protection system," says Paul Kemp, a Louisiana State University engineer and a member of Team Louisiana, a group of scientists studying why the levees failed. The current system of levees and floodwalls was begun after Hurricane Betsy swamped New Orleans in 1965. When Katrina hit, it was still unfinished.
There are some improvements, including gates at the foot of the canals that caused most of the flooding and a better design for the replaced walls. Even the Corps admits that another storm could overwhelm the levees. The Corps has said there was not enough time to do more than restore the system to what it was pre-Katrina, and so far, Congress has approved $5 billion for levee work, not enough for a completely new system.
"If you were really signaling that you were going to do something different, you would have to do something different with the levees," Kemp says. "You would invest in a 21st-century protection system. We should want nothing less than a city that you don’t have to evacuate."
About 20,000 students are encountering the biggest change in New Orleans: The total remake of public schools. Students are beginning classes this month in about 52 New Orleans schools, down from 60,000 students in more than 100 schools pre-Katrina. The long-troubled Orleans Parish School Board will control only four of those schools. Another 15 or so will be run by the state, which took over most schools in the weeks after the storm. The majority — 32 schools — will be charter institutions, receiving public money but run independently by parents, universities and other private groups.
"The school system was a disaster," Reilly says. "We’re rebuilding an entire system from scratch that can be a national model, built around charter schools. This has never been done before."
For the first time in recent memory, all classrooms will be fully equipped with new desks, books, abundant supplies and computers. The bathrooms will have working toilets and lots of toilet paper — a perennial problem here in the past. Many of the charter schools have raised money for landscaping and new playground equipment.
"We have an opportunity to really start fresh, and that will make a big difference for the economy," says Ryan, whose university chartered two city schools.
Of course, one other aspect of city life will be markedly different for years to come: the population. Best estimates are that about 200,000 people now live in New Orleans. No one knows how many more will return.
About 100,000 Louisiana homeowners, most of them in the New Orleans area, have applied for federal rebuilding money, to be distributed by the LRA beginning next month. There’s more than $7 billion available to give homeowners up to $150,000 each. No one knows yet how residents will choose to spend their money, whether they’ll rebuild or sell their homes to the state. Homeowners can still get the money if they plan to leave New Orleans, but less if they plan to leave the state.
Ryan says no one should have expected Katrina to transform New Orleans.
"This last year has been hell. Many of us have lived in conditions we wouldn’t have dreamed of living in before." And for New Orleans to get back to where it was before, he says, "is going to take years."